Leviathan is a Russian film, partly funded by The Russian Cinema Fund and yet is far from being a pro-Russian propaganda film. Indeed one suspects had Putin seen the film before its release it would never have seen the light of day and yet such are the universal themes and stories at the centre of the film it’s easy to view as an essay on the corruption of the world as it is of those which exist in Russia.
Koyla (Aleksey Serebryakov) lives in a small coastal town with his wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and son in a house he built himself. But the local mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov) has other ideas for the land and is determined to pay a low price for it. Desperate to keep his home Koyla enlists the help of his former army friend and now lawyer Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) who claims to have dirt on Vadim that will resolve all the issues. But the wheels of justice turn slowly here and Koyla’s quest is wrought with danger.
Leviathan is never an easy watch, it possesses that innate Tolstoy or Chekhov realist Russian ability to give you early hope only to shatter it in ways not even your deepest, darkest fears could predict. And it yet seems all too easy to label the film as stereotypically Russian. That, thanks in no small part to the role they are currently playing in global affairs, this tragic story could only happen in a country rife with money grabbing and corruption. But crucially the film has its genesis in the United States and the story of Marvin Heemeyer, a man who having lost a zoning dispute took the fight quite literally to the town hall in a modified bulldozer.
There’s nothing quite as satisfyingly Hollywood in Leviathan. Instead director Andrey Zvyaginstev, who heard Heemeyer’s story and was inspired by it, weaves an emotionally, and alcohol, fuelled tale of such a bleak nature that come the end you may well be reaching for the vodka bottle to stave the depression. Because throughout there are references to Job, to men struggling against a cruel world you believe there is hope, that maybe, just maybe, Koyla will have his day. But that title is no coincidence, because Leviathan has many tentacles ready to pounce beneath its glassy surface in order to rip hope from your freezing dead corpse.
Zvyaginstev litters the film with stunning visuals of the ice-cold world. At over two hours there is little here that can be considered superfluous, even scenes that seemingly paint the villain of the piece as a man trying to do the right thing are soon flipped come the final moments. Seeds are planted, from Dmitiri’s arrival onwards that are destined to grow thick and thorny branches to tear at both Koyla and our very souls.
A terrifying and brutally honest indictment of the money-driven, corrupt world we live in, Leviathan doesn’t just put down the little guy, it outright squashes him and is devastatingly compelling as a result.